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feeling fine

From coffee to exercise and more, a little goes a long way

In this season of excess, no one needs reminding that it's possible to get too much of a good thing. Homemade sweet treats, Christmas carols, dogs in festive sweaters — all are best in moderation.

But even what seems healthy can backfire, when taken to extremes.

Getting it off your chest

You're a polite, nonconfrontational person, so when the world drives you crazy, you punch a pillow or scream out loud. Pop psychology has taught that this release is good for you. But studies conducted as early as 1999 suggest that this kind of venting can leave people feeling more aggressive.

"What we pay attention to, tends to grow, which is why indulgence of negative emotions is likely to make them worse, not better," says Barbara Rhode, a marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg.

Instead, she suggests stepping aside and recognizing that someone or something has hit your anger button. You get the cathartic effect of acknowledging your anger, without indulging it in a physically reactive way. You also get time to calm down and decide what to do.

Or walk away from anger — literally. "The parts of the brain that go on high alert when you're affected by negative experience are calmed down by movement, such as running, or even a walk," says Rhode.

Wiggling your toes

A new movement is afoot. The cushioning and support of high-tech running shoes, the argument goes, may keep your feet from their maximum strength and flexibility.

Enter the minimalist shoes — some with separated toes, some with flexible soles, and others with nothing but fabric at the sole. All aim to simulate barefoot running, without the obvious hygiene problems of actual barefoot running.

Turns out a little of this is best.

"Barefoot running is a great training tool, but it is not a way to do mileage," explains Bill Davidson, a certified pedorthist who owns Tampa's Running Center.

"Your body is used to walking and running with heels. In barefoot-style shoes there's no heel and your foot is flat, which puts stress on the tendons and calf muscles."

Switching between the barefoot-style shoes and all the other shoes you wear pulls your muscles in opposite directions. This is especially pronounced for women who wear high heels. "It could take you up to six months to get used to your new shoes, if you manage to stick with them that long," said Davidson.

Rather than spending $100 on new shoes, Davidson suggests taking off your regular shoes and looking for a nice grassy surface. "Once a week, go to a soccer or a football field and run barefoot 30-40 yards, four to five times, for a total of 150 yards. That is all you need.''

Running . . . and running

Is there any athletic accomplishment more majestic than finishing a marathon? Crossing a finish line after hours of running, with your pulse racing, your sweat dripping, and your head spinning?

Oh, and also with your heart tissue inflamed.

According to several studies, finishing a marathon results in increased levels of troponin, a marker of heart-cell damage, especially among those who trained less than 35 miles a week. Additionally, the physical strain of marathons lowers your immune system while putting considerable stress on your hip flexors and tendons.

Most importantly, undertaking these increased risks will not necessarily yield increased benefits.

"Running for 30-45 minutes a day, five days a week, will yield all the health and fitness benefits you need," explains Davidson.

Not up for running? Walking will do the job too. Just go fast enough to get a good cardio workout.

The bottomless cup

The benefits of coffee keep brewing up. But when scientists talk about drinking a cup or two of coffee, they are talking about actual cups — those 8-ounce relics that could fit inside your coffee mug. A Starbucks Venti, at 24 ounces, contains three cups of coffee.

According to the Mayo Clinic, heavy caffeine use — more than 500 to 600 milligrams — can cause headaches, restlessness, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety and, of course, insomnia. An 8-ounce cup contains about 100 milligrams.

If you're trying to cut back on caffeine, try tricking your brain by mixing regular and decaf coffee.

Roughing it

These days, it seems like fiber is pumped into everything from breads and granola bars to pasta and yogurt. Roughage helps keep us full, while lowering cholesterol and promoting regularity.

But fiber comes with a learning curve. "Your body needs time to adjust to fiber," says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian at All Children's Hospital and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Those who dive in suddenly can experience an extreme and uncomfortable sense of fullness, to say nothing of flatulence. This effect could be exacerbated if you don't drink water with your fiber.

"It's like putting in Drano but not flushing it with water," says Krieger. "The fiber will just sit there."

Introduce fiber gradually until you reach the recommended daily amount of 25 to 35 grams, and drink lots of water. Consuming more than 50 grams of fiber may cause either constipation or its opposite, diarrhea, which just goes to show how unpredictable results can be when you get too much of a good thing.

Stretching it out

Can you bend over and touch your toes? Good for you. Now, be mindful of when you do it.

Several studies have shown that stretching before exercise such as weight lifting isn't a good idea. A 2008 University of Nevada study found athletes had less leg strength after static stretching (holding the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds).

Nor will this type of stretching decrease the risk of injury.

But you do need to warm up: Runners might start with walking or jogging, for instance. Ralph Reiff, athletic trainer and director at St. Vincent Sports Medicine Performance in Indianapolis, suggests dynamic stretching, which focuses on mobility rather than flexibility.

Once you've completed your run or workout, then do your static stretching. "At this point, static stretching removes lactic acid from your muscles while helping to elongate them to original size, both of which reduce soreness," he said.

Killing germs, part 1

Hand soaps, body washes and even toothpaste have been infused with bacteria-killing chemicals, such as triclosan or triclocarban.

But scientists are saying an overload of such products isn't good. A 2007 study by scientists at the University of California at Davis found that when triclocarban enters a man's bloodstream through his skin, it mimics testosterone and can cause the body to produce less of the real stuff.

And we probably don't even need this kind of chemical hygiene.

"Studies have shown that antibacterial soaps don't really improve results," says Judith Johnson, a research professor of pathology at the Emerging Pathogen Institute at the University of Florida. "It's a way to get you to buy soap."

She says handwashing technique is a lot more important than what's in the soap. (Proper handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent flu and colds — along with getting a flu shot and avoiding sick people.)

"If you don't scrub long enough, no soap will work," says Johnson, who recommends you lather your hands for 20 seconds and put special emphasis on fingernails, where germs hide most easily.

Killing germs, part 2

Who hasn't gone to the doctor's office with a cold and walked out with a prescription for antibiotics? The doc knows, and even most of us know, that antibiotics don't knock out viruses, which are the culprits behind colds. Yet we ask for the pills, figuring they can't hurt and might help.

Think again.

Unnecessary antibiotics "can disturb your natural flora —the bacteria living on your skin, organs, mucus membranes, and all the other parts of your body," Johnson explained.

"When you take antibiotics, you kill a lot of good bacteria as well, which can, among other things, give you gastrointestinal disturbances."

Worse than an upset tummy (or even a yeast infection) is what happens when you really do need an antibiotic, but you've got a bug that just laughs at the old-line drugs.

Macrolides — a popular one is Zithromax — are stronger antibiotics that in rare cases can cause hearing problems, Johnson said. "These are serious antibiotics, but since we are developing a resistance to simpler antibiotics, we may need more and more of these stronger types of drugs for when we get severe infections."

Resistance is inevitable, but the pace of resistance is something we can control, she said. So rather than demanding a prescription, ask your doctor if an antibiotic will really get you feeling better faster.

If not, thank him or her for the candor, and do your best to rest up, drink fluids and avoid spreading your germs to others. Consideration, after all, is a good thing you can never get — or give — too much of.

Emin Hadziosmanovic is a bay area freelance writer who specializes in health topics.

From coffee to exercise and more, a little goes a long way 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 3:30am]
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